This article consists of a collection of frequently asked questions about all the different types of reflective tapes. If you have a question to add, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
How does reflective tape reflect? Reflective tapes reflect light back to the source by receiving light, bending light, and bouncing it back to the source. Glass beads were the original method of accomplishing this, and later, in the 1960’s, prisms began to be used. Glass beads and prisms function in similar ways, with prisms being much more efficient and much brighter.
What kind of reflective tape is used on roadways? Reflective tape on roadways is MUTCD regulated, so virtually all the traffic signs you see use bright prismatic sheeting for the background. Type 4 or above films are used for signs on poles. Type 8, Type 9, and Type 11 films are used for the overhead signs.
What are the different colored reflective tapes used for? In traffic and in general, each color of reflective tape sends a different message to the viewer. White is speed, red is stop, yellow is caution, orange is work zone, green is directions or guidance, blue is information, pink is incident management such as road closed, fluorescent lime is school zones. For non traffic applications, colors are used for other purposes. One example is blue for fire hydrants. Yellow for dumpsters and trash containers. Lime and red for the backs of fire trucks. And red and white for DOT regulated trucks.
What is the first thing to consider when selecting reflective tape for my application? The surface is the first thing to consider. Flat smooth surfaces can use any tape, but contoured, uneven surfaces or small diameter tubes should use a flexible, stretchable tape. And surfaces like road barrels or traffic cones need a reboundable flexible tape as well. Also, remember that non stick surfaces like powder coated surfaces or textured plastics would need to be to be prepped before applying any tape.
What is the second thing to consider when selecting reflective tape for my application? The second consideration for reflective tape should be the distance a viewer will be from the tape. This will determine what type and brightness you should purchase. Generally speaking, the higher the type (1-11), the brighter the tape. Also, keep in mind that a regulation may apply to your application, in which case you would follow those guidelines. Reflective tapes come in Type 1 through 11 and there are also many specialty tapes for specific applications. (Rail Car, SOLAS, DOT C2, etc..)
What is the third thing to consider when selecting reflective tape for my application? Color is the third consideration when selecting a retro reflective film. Each color of tape has a different meaning to viewers. If you are just trying to call attention to an object that you want viewers to avoid, then often any color will suffice. But if you are trying to convey a specific message, such as stop, use caution, or go, then a particular color should be used. See the question above about colors.
What is an example of using all three of the above considerations? Let’s say you have a pair of bollards that you want to mark that are 4 inches in diameter with a smooth surface. Since the surface is smooth and not too tight of a diameter, any tape will wrap around the bollards. You need the bollards to be seen from 300 feet away. So a Type 3 would work, but a Type 4 or above would be better. A V92 or V82 (Type 5) would work well since it is very thin and wraps well. You want viewers to exercise “caution” or “stop” as they get to the bollards. So a Yellow or Red reflective film would work. Or use both. Either a wide band (4 inches) or two narrower bands (2 inches).
On two color striped reflective tapes, what do the stripe directions mean? Striped tapes come in three configuations. Block (no angle)|||||, Left Hand Slant (leans left from bottom to top)\\\\, and Right Hand Slant (leans right from bottom to top)////. Block patterns that do not slant designate that viewers should stop. Left Hand patterns indicate that viewers should go around and pass to the right. Right Hand patterns indicate that viewers should go around and pass to the left. End of road or road out barricades use a left slant on the right and a right slant on the left. This designates that cars should stop and not go around. \\\\//// The important thing is to slow way down and use caution when slanted tapes are present on roadways.
How do I remove reflective tape? Some reflective tapes are easier to remove than others, but the same method is used for all of them. Heat should be used to warm up the tape so that the adhesive softens. A hair dryer or heat gun on low will work. Then find and edge and peel as you heat. You can also use a plastic scraper that is made for removing graphics. (i.e. Little Chisler) Keep the edge lubricated with WD40 as you scrape to keep from scratching the surface. Once you have removed all of the film, remove the adhesive residue with an adhesive remover like Goo Gone, Goof Off, or another brand. Some remove residue better than others.
What is the brightest reflective tape? Oralite AP1000 film is the brightest retro reflective sheeting that we know of. It is the base film for V82, SOLAS, P82 Photoelectric, Rail Gate Arm Tape, and more. Out of these films, SOLAS is the brightest and is used for offshore applications where extreme sight distance is critical. This is a metallized film. (The brightest Air Backed prismatic film is an Oralite 9900 Series Type 11 – made for signs)
What is the toughest reflective tape? Single layer metallized films tend to be the most rugged of all reflective tape. This is because they are made as a single fused layer with no delamination possible. Oralite DOT Tape, SOLAS Marine Tape, Rail Gate Arm Tape, Rail Car Tape, School Bus Tape, V92, and V82 are examples of this type of film construction. Tough single layer metallized prismatic reflective films are used in dynamic applications where they may be subject to rough treatment. These films hold together under abuse better than Air Backed Prismatic films like those used for traffic signs.
If metallized films are brighter and tougher, why are they not used for all reflective applications? This is a very good question. For many applications, metallized films are perfect. But for traffic signs, there are other characteristics that are needed, and Air Backed Prismatic films meet these needs. First is better chromaticity or vividness. Traffic signs have to be vivid in the daytime, and at night. Air backed prismatic tapes feature truer and more vivid colors than metallized films. Especially for white, yellow and orange. Second is longevity in a static application like a sign. In certain non dynamic applications like signs, Air Backed Prismatics last longer. This is due to their acrylic construction. Finally, air backed prismatic films reflect at broader angles, allowing cars to see them better. They put out a wider cone of reflectivity, which is perfect for traffic and vehicle headlights.
Does it matter how high or low reflective tape is placed? Yes, it makes a big difference in performance. The higher reflective tape is place, the less likely it is to receive light from oncoming headlights or other light sources. Retro reflective tape returns light to the source, but if light strikes below it, it will have no light to return.
What is Wide Observation Reflective Tape? All retro reflective tapes or sheeting reflect light back to the source of the light in what is called a cone of reflectivity. Wide Observation films spread light out using modified prisms that are more angled and deeper. Think of it like a spot light versus a bright floodlight, with wide observation retro reflective being the floodlight. More is illuminated by a floodlight, and more people on the receiving end can see the light.
Can reflective sheeting be printed on? – Yes, you can print on reflective sheeting provided you use the right type of printer to do so. Engineer grade reflective, Oralite V98, and Oralite 5930 Work Zone films print nicely on wide format Eco Sol, Latex, or UV printers. Acrylic films like Oralite 5900, Oralite 7900 and Oralite 9900 Type 11 are also printable with these machines, however, laminating is more important with these films.
If you print on reflective tape or sheeting, is it still reflective? Yes, the printed areas are still reflective, but just less so. For example, a white engineer grade reflective tape would reflect at 750 candelas. When over printed with red, the red color would reflect at closer to 130 candelas. Orange ink over white would be close to 200 candelas. Lower reflectivity is fine since those color printed areas create contrast with the brighter white, thus getting the attention of viewers.
How long will printed reflective sheeting last outdoors? Eco Sol prints will last 2-3 years outdoors without lamination and greater than 5 years outdoors when laminated. Latex inkjet prints will last 1-2 years outdoors without lamination and greater than 3 years when laminated. UV inks will last 1-2 years unlaminated outdoors and 3 plus years when laminated.
What types of printers will print on reflective films? There are three main types of printers and ink sets that print on reflective sheeting. Eco Solvent Ink Jet Printers, Latex Ink Jet Printers, and UV Ink Jet Printers. Eco Sol Inks are solvent based and are able to penetrate into the substrate being printed on. Because of this, Eco Sol prints can be placed outdoors without lamination. Latex Inks are water based and do not soak into the surface. They sit on top of the substrate and are set with a heater that is built into the printer itself. UV Inks are resin based and also sit on top of the surface. They are set quickly during printing using UV light built into the printer. It is recommended that both latex and uv prints be laminated before placing them outdoors. Eco Sol prints are already outdoor durable, but benefit from lamination as well.
What colors of reflective tape are the brightest? Within any line of retro reflective sheeting, white is always the brightest. Yellow (Lime) is next, then Orange, then Red, then Green, then Blue, then Black, and then Brown. An interesting exception to this list is Black 5650 Rapid Air by Oralite. It is brighter than the Orange, but not quite as bright as the Yellow. So it is number three in the list.
Why are white reflective tapes an off white color instead of pure white? Since reflective tapes use either mirror like glass beads or prisms for reflectivity, they have a grey or silver tint to them, much like your mirror at home has. White lines are often added to enhance the color. When reflecting, white retro reflective tape shines a very bright and pure white.
Steven Cole (Economics, MBA – University of West Florida , Business & Innovation – Stanford University) 25 years of experience in the reflective safety business. Specializing in vehicle accident and rear end collision reduction through increased visibility.